By Mark J. Spalding, President, The Ocean Foundation
A version of this blog originally appeared in National Geographic’s Ocean Views.
One recent Monday, I got to spend the day doing something outside, not in a conference room, not in my office, just out in one of North America’s great natural wonders. My day began at 7, when the Executive Director of the Mobile Botanical Gardens, Bill Finch (who is also a Senior Fellow with us at The Ocean Foundation) picked me up at my hotel in Mobile, Alabama. With John Adornato, head of the Sun Coast region of the National Parks Conservation Association, we headed out to the Brookleigh Aeroplex to meet Skip Tonsmeire, a volunteer pilot with SouthWings.
Skip took us up in his Cessna T210 for a trip up the Tensaw Delta. Directly north of Mobile Bay, within a broad river valley that leads northward to the confluence of the Tombigbee and Alabama Rivers, lies a vast region of wetlands known by various names, including the Mobile-Tensaw delta, the Mobile Delta, or simply the Delta. This region is home to some of the most diverse wildlife and landscapes in Alabama, and indeed in the entire United States. It is also incredibly beautiful.
We leave Mobile, its tall buildings and towering port cranes, behind quickly. From the air, the Delta is, at this time of year, a kaleidoscope of shades of green cut through by wide swaths of water that shift and change with season and rainfall. Bill Finch has explored the Delta on foot, by water, and in the air for decades. Many share his passion, and we are fortunate to have such an expert on board for the tour. As we fly, he points out landmarks that represent centuries of the human relationship with its rich, diverse habitat and the many resources—from recreation to wild rice, to fish, to building materials—that the Delta continues to provide. Now in the late spring, the fresh green of emerging growth glows emerald beneath us, punctuated by vacated industrial sites of failed human endeavors. The open savannah and the cypress shaded creeks are destinations for later in the day after we descend reluctantly back to earth.
After our flight, we join the larger group that is in Mobile to discuss the feasibility of protecting the natural landscapes and the recreational opportunities that the Delta presents. Such protections could bring all kinds of recreational visitors to the region—kayakers, hunters, fishermen, and other nature lovers—and preserve the unique and breathtaking sweeps of the Delta landscape. With TOF project coordinator Devon Coleman, we join other members of the NPCA staff, representatives from Mobile Baykeeper, the Walton Family Foundation, the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, the Sybil H. Smith Charitable Trust and the Munson Foundation to eat lunch and prepare for our afternoon on the water. Ray Mayhew and Bryan Pape, President and past president, of the Mobile Baykeeper board have volunteered their time to drive the boats for our tour on this beautiful day. Their love of the Delta is apparent even before we leave the dock—it’s clear that both of them consider it a pleasure, not a sacrifice, to be out here on the water with us. A blue heron lands on a nearby tree to watch our departure.
Our first stop will be to go visit the wet open sweep of lilies, rice, and the invasive alligator weed. As we motor into a side creek, alligators slide off the banks into the water. We clamber out onto the bank and sink immediately up to our ankles in water. The vegetation is thigh high and lush. Stands of Delta lily are in full bloom, there is iris and arrow arum, and we even spy a tiny frog on its stalk.
Next, we head for Three-Mile creek, a blackwater stream lined with cypress, bay, and sweeps of wild rice. We learn that the water is unusually high and muddy, perhaps from recent storms. We startle a great white egret as we come around the bend. Here and there, we stop and turn off the engines so we can listen. The scent of our native wild wisteria wafts across as and dragonflies buzz round. Hard to envision these two-inch aerial acrobats as one of nature’s most successful predators—successfully snatching their prey out of the air more than 90 percent of the time.
We leave Three Mile Creek and head across to Burns Lake, heading out and up the river a ways.
The Delta’s story is not all light, water, critters, trees, and grasses, however. Red & white for sale signs along the bluff, signal the impending loss of dozens of acres of forests, a civil war encampment, and ancient human community sites. The acreage is adjacent to part of Historic Blakeley State Park, a city that once competed with Mobile in size and status. All that remains today are gravestones, a few ruins and traces of old streets. The site of Blakeley had been the location of important settlements for thousands of years. Native Americans settled here more than 4,000 years ago to hunt, fish and gather food from the rich delta. The early Native Americans gave way to French settlers, who lived here after the founding of Mobile. The state park is a wonder in and of itself, sitting on the eastern edge of the Delta, it boasts a quarter mile boardwalk from which visitors can fish or watch for birds as the park is a key stop on the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail. Boat tours into the Delta carry other visitors out to see its wonders. It seems a shame that one day, visitors might come up a river where the scale of human development is so different from the handful of little cabins on stilts adjacent to the landing a half mile or so upstream.
Still, that day is not this beautiful day. We find the narrow entrance to Burns Lake. I was expecting that we would come around the bend and there would be a stretch of big open water—like other lakes we can all envision. But Burns Lake is secretive, its open water twists and winds through hardwoods and shrubs. Here we have a unique commingling of species that naturally occur here together whose normal range is far away. Upland and wetland, water lilies and cypress, trees of states further north and trees best known in Puerto Rico in a crazy collision of perfect habitats for all.
Our last stop is brief, walking around on an ancient shell island, and seasonal home to long ago inhabitants of the bay. The rich resources of the Delta sustained them too. It is warm and wet, and the water runs a clear black amid the palmettos and the trees.
It is getting late as we clamber aboard Ray’s boat, a little worried about our muddy wet feet, but he waves off our concerns. Reluctantly, we know it is time to head back to Scott’s Landing filled with all we have seen this afternoon, and knowing that there are thousands of acres more that would take a lifetime to explore—the long bluffs, the red hills, other streams, other creatures. It is a dynamic, changing landscape, rich in life, and vulnerable to shortsighted uses by humans, and we know that we can all share in creating the legacy for future generations to enjoy the Delta in diverse and meaningful ways.